BANGOR, Maine — State government officials told Mainers a year ago that privatizing the Elizabeth Levinson Center, which provides care for severely mentally retarded Maine children and young adults, was necessary to save money.
But as the center’s expected savings after privatization for this fiscal year have shrunk from $400,000 to just a few hundred dollars, officials now are saying that the primary reason to privatize the state-owned and state-operated facility was simply to get out of the business of providing direct care.
“We see the state’s role as quality assurance and quality oversight,” Jane Gallivan, director of the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Adults with Cognitive and Physical Disabilities, said Thursday. “The savings was never really projected as being a huge savings.”
Last February, Commissioner Brenda Harvey of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services told lawmakers that privatizing the center would save $411,000 a year. It has cost the state about $3.2 million annually to run, according to the commissioner.
But Sunday, March 1, is the first day the Levinson Center will be operated by the private nonprofit organization United Cerebral Palsy of Northeastern Maine, and the math has changed.
Bobbi Jo Yeager, the executive director of the nonprofit, said she estimates the “proposed daily rate” the state will pay is $690 a day for each of the 13 children, an increase over a December estimate of $669.44.
Mary Moody of Hallowell, the mother of a Levinson Center resident, said the daily rate the state now pays is $690.12.
That works out to an annual savings of just $569.40.
State and UCP officials cautioned against using the proposed daily rate as an absolute cost of the program.
“The rate is our best guess estimate at this point of what it’s actually going to cost us,” Yeager said.
But Nick Galipeau of the Maine State Employees Association said that the privatization process has been unfair to Levinson Center workers and that the diminished estimated savings is unfair to taxpayers.
“I think the state really has rammed privatization of state jobs through the Legislature upon the premise of cost savings to taxpayers. That’s been their original platform,” he said. “I think that the state is reversing itself now by saying that it’s their philosophy to privatize.”
Most of the state workers employed at the Levinson Center have been rehired by United Cerebral Palsy at the same hourly wage they have been earning, although it is generally “much higher” than in comparable Bangor facilities, Gallivan said.
“We honored that going forward,” she said. “However, their benefit package is clearly not as rich as that of the state of Maine.”
Yeager said that 2½ positions have been trimmed from the center.
“We’re going to be continuing to look for cost savings wherever we can find them,” she said. “We just didn’t want to jump to any conclusions.”
She said that much of the operating budget is wages — and that had the state continued to run the center, its yearly operating costs would have gone up when state workers received a 4 percent raise in January.
“Unless you drastically change hours over there, you’re not going to drastically change the budget. I’m sure the legislators were a little upset about it. We believe we might find cost savings going forward, but I’m glad we don’t have to make major changes at this point,” Yeager said. “I feel that the state was committed enough to these kids to not put anybody in jeopardy and to allow the staffing hours to stay the same.”
Moody, who advocates on behalf of her daughter, said she is concerned that the privatization might lead to greater staff turnover, especially as the staff now will receive a less generous benefits package.
“What I’m concerned with is quality of care,” she said. “I’m not saying it’s going to change, but I’m worried it might change.”